Jamal Murray doesn’t play basketball, he perfects it

There are some things you grow into, others out of, and rare things that never leave you. When Jamal Murray first shot an arrow, it was at his Kentucky Wildcat teammate, EJ Floreal, watching from the bench. Murray had fired a corner 3-pointer, leapt into the air with a huge lift, and turned toward Floreal as he reached back to the ground to just as fluidly retract his right arm and shoot his left arm forward in an archer’s stance . Murray let go, then dropped his left hand – still bent as if cradling a bow – and turned to come back down as Floreal feigned a collapse in the arms of the party bench.

At the time, Kentucky men’s basketball head coach John Calipari dismissed it as a “freshman stuff,” young greatness. There were other criticisms that the move as a party took too long. There were other athletes who started doing the gesture around the same time as Murray — Yogi Ferrell did it as a Hoosier, and Ferrell attributed the move to something he saw Wesley Matthews do in Dallas – but we know Murray best for that. And it is not because he does it with fervent frequency; a growing complaint from Nuggets fans since Murray’s return from injury this season was that the move had been used sparingly, if at all.

NBA parties are made memorable through replays. Bravado and repetition. James Harden stirring the pot, JR Smith’s one-armed windmill, Damian Lillard’s wrist-tapping Dame Time, all intricate, silent pantomimes that speak loudly and produce responsive fan noise. With Murray it is not correct to say that his bow and arrow move and subsequently “Blue Arrow” moniker came from a phase of youthful frivolity because Murray has never been so frivolous of a player. On the field, he is lithe, quiet, calm, the result of decades of rigorous physical and mental training under his father, Roger Murray, and the elder Murray’s fascination with the abilities of a quiet mind, best exemplified by Bruce Lee and Kung Fu.

Even when Murray breaks out the bow, he turns completely to the movements of the mime. His movements are fluid, he often lifts himself like a dancer from his shoulders while getting his arms in place. His muscles tense and flex preemptively, as if he were pulling a string and balancing an arrow lightly against it. In the release, his body relaxes. It’s a performance, but it’s as polished as anything else he does on the floor, made memorable because, unlike his peers who lean into the league’s penchant for theatrics, Murray’s silent arrow is filled with all the calculating, nervous calmness in his playing. . What he does, what he does, you would never call “playing.”

In high school, Murray used to meditate before every practice and every game, using the exercise as an early visualization technique to plot all his movements before they happened. It’s something he still does, admitting in a press release between Games 3 and 4 of the Finals that he asks Gene Marquez, one of Denver’s equipment managers, what color jerseys the Nuggets are wearing on any given night so he can ground his visualizations in reality.

“I can imagine the kind of energy I want to bring in the uniform I’m in,” Murray said, “I also envision reactions, like if I miss a shot, what’s the first thing I think of? Like, damn, that was a good shot, that breakaway shot, or just go back or don’t worry about it.”

This way, Murray noted, there are fewer surprises. He can mentally run through as many scenarios as he is able to imagine in a few minutes, setting his mind and body in motion, even his own internal script. There are holes in the approach, mostly evident in the Finals and the way the Heat found themselves destabilizing and disrupting even the stoic Murray through basketball the opposite of the type Denver plays. Miami in the series and throughout their play-in build-up was relentless, abrupt, forcing tempo, upping a game’s tempo via jarring stops and wobbly turnovers, fundamentally opposed to the Nuggets’ smooth, practiced sequences. In the vicious mess, there were visible stretches where Murray grew frustrated, clearly not factoring what was at times downright ugly basketball into his meticulous mental map of any given game. But he recovered, relying on the bulwark of Nikola Jokic and the ability between the two of them to deftly grab back the rhythm.

When he was younger, before games and practices, Murray also used meditation as a bridge to better control his body. He said he could set his heart rate at 34 beats per minute (the average resting range is between 60-100) and remain calm to slow down the action around him. Murray’s movements then and now seemed slow and fluid, as if he had stepped outside the real time of the game. Rowan Barrett, who saw Murray play for the first time as a 15-year-old in a north Toronto gym, likened him to a heat-seeking missile, stealthy but motivated by something deep inside that could not be deterred.

There were glimpses of this in the final, where it looked like Murray would fight a sequence, run or run out of the chaos the Heat necessarily threw it into and set it right. To something that was orderly again. Most point guards go with the tempo of a game, matching their movements and by extension their team’s actions to it. In fact, changing the tempo is a completely different kind of control, like getting a runaway train into a subway timed to each stop.

Murray’s own control was shattered when he went down in April 2021 with a torn ACL. There are some moments that aren’t worth re-visualizing, and Murray’s powerful, downhill drive through traffic to the Warriors’ basket only to curl and slide along the hardwood is one. His writhing in pain another. His recovery and eventual rehab took the 2021-2022 season away from him, along with some of his visualization abilities.

“If you go back to the first game in Utah, I picked the ball up in the paint like five times I could count. I was so lost. I had never felt so lost on the court before,” Murray recalled after the game 5 and noted his reluctance to get into the paint and draw contact, or his hesitation to jump and land. “I still have different moments where I’m tentative — the best way for me to put it — to take certain actions , as returning among all.”

Hoping to understand what his recovery would be like, down to the emotional setbacks and physical feelings of it, Murray said he was in frequent communication with other players who had suffered the injury — naming Zach LaVine as well as Klay Thompson and Victor Oladipo — to visualize himself through it. He credited Oladipo’s positive outlook paired with Thompson’s brutal honesty about how the process would go with being able to put himself through it. He wanted it all.

“I also had my doubts, that’s natural. Somebody asked me about butterflies,” Murray said in his postgame presser after Denver won Game 5 and the title, jersey so soaked in champagne that the collar was pulled down to reveal his jersey underneath, “that’s what makes you alive, that’s what makes you care . When you doubt yourself, that’s what makes you turn it around.”

Murray teased the “Blue Arrow” celebration twice in Game 5. Midway through the third quarter, as he began to regain control of the adrenaline that had coursed through him in the first half and adjust his shot, he made a corner three on a running pass from Michael Porter Jr. Jogging back in transition, Murray reached over his shoulder with an open hand as if rifling around a quiver of darts. In the fourth, off a sharp sequence of Denver ball movement, Murray took and made a long shot from the left arc. He jumped on the spot and then spun back down the floor with his elbows out as if holding an arc in front of him as he watched the cheering crowd for a goal. Somehow the echoes of the move, the banter of the early movements of his familiar party gave a new kind of security. Here was Murray, with a keen awareness that everything behind him suddenly fell into place, moments away from delivering Denver its first-ever NBA championship, and he was playing big. His movements were the same mixture of method and confidence, but now there was an added relaxation. Murray didn’t force time, he had fun with it.

There is another archer who came to represent harmony, reason and order. Said to preside over the transition of the young into adulthood, especially young men who perhaps had a tendency towards “new things” and the potential of what it was they could become. Who was closely associated with medicine, health and healing – The Greek god Apollo. Applied to everyone else, the comparison and its parallels are wryly strained, too close to parody. But with Murray, unassuming, honest, made better by doubt, the likeness is easy. We may never see the bow and arrow with the same frequency again, but we don’t need to to know that Murray’s is golden, and was all along.

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